Reflections on Reading, Learning via Electronic Literature

I am currently teaching “Writing Electronic Literature” and I admit it is one of my favorite classes to teach these days. There are many reasons for this. Perhaps the first is that I have discovered a new found passion for works of literature that originate within digital environments and require digital computation to be read. In the world of electronic literature, the consideration of what might be “literary” is pushed to new frontiers. This is due to both the affordances and constraints of a dynamic computational environment which is harnessed to shape narrative in innovative ways. My students and I explore and analyze hypertext narrative, IF (interactive fiction), locative narrative, generative art, kinetic poetry, etc.

Another reason why I love teaching “E-Lit” is that our course is truly a production-centered experience. We are not just readers, we are makers. My students will create several multimodal “artifacts” and push the boundaries of our traditional notions of a story. They will identify certain projects that matter to them individually, and they will figure out how to make and share those self-driven projects in the time we have together. An example of this work is our contribution to the The Generative Literature Project (#GenLit). This is a crowdsourced gamified digital novel about a murder. Our class is one of 10 from the U.S., the Marshall Islands, and Puerto Rico who will complete a series of artifacts about and around 10 “distinguished alumni” of the fictional “Theopolis College” (a highly competitive Liberal Arts College that exists in the “leafy suburb” of the fictional town of Theopolis — approximately 25 miles outside Washington D.C. in Maryland.) In the digital artifacts created by my students will be the clues and red-herrings, motives and alibis of the suspects in the murder of Theopolis College President, Cadence MackArthur. The Generative Literature Project was created by Frederick Cope and Michelle Kassorla, and will be published by Hybrid Pedagogy.  

crime-sceneStill another reason this course has me so jazzed is because I am confident that it is a true connected learning experience. If you are curious about what a connected course might look like (shout out to my #ccourses friends and colleagues), I offer this class as an possible example. In Writing Electronic Literature, we are not bound by the four walls of our classroom, but rather, we are part of a larger conversation regarding storytelling and new media. From the moment we sent off our first #elitclass tweet into the twitterverse, we have been connecting with others (from across the globe) who share similar questions and interests. We connect with other scholars, students, artists and writers, and those connections mirror/model what learning can be in this day and age. Each conversation we have in the realm of social media becomes a portal to a newfound community. Each conversation thread serves as an example for an open and productive digital engagement — a skill that is required of all 21st century learners. Together, we are building practical digital literacies as we discover the way technology is changing how we tell our stories.

So, my Electronic Lit students and I began this semester considering an age old question: What is literature? My students noted that there are certain expectations tied to literature — that it is connected to a particular time and place. At the same time, students perceive literature as “timeless” or representing values that endure. Sometimes literature is associated with an elite intellectual culture, and often there is a certain notion of aesthetics or beauty tied to our general sense of what literature should be. This discussion led us to think about how literature does not have a permanent set of characteristics, but rather, it is connected to changing cultural values. We noted that there is certain dynamism to the notion of literature, that it is not a fixed phenomenon. That lead me to proclaim that indeed “Literature is ALIVE!” (We had a good laugh over that one when one of my students dropped this Young Frankenstein pic into our #elitclass twitter feed).

elit-tweetMy students admitted that electronic forms of literature “unsettle” us. E-Lit certainly disrupts our typical associations with the act of reading. Electronic texts often have meaningful elements in the images, sounds or movements; they are not necessarily text or even word-based. What electronic texts are about often connects to the “experience of reading” rather than to what is read. Many electronic texts are interactive — or connected to the network or the physical world — in ways that print texts are not. The reader’s interactions may simply determine the organization of the text — or they may operate in some ways to create the text by limiting or changing the possibilities for further interactions. Clearly, the participant’s choice of reading strategies will influence his/her experience of electronic texts. Do E-Lit readers have more agency — even partial authorship — over the texts they read?  We have discovered that “navigation” is a central characteristic of a digital literary aesthetic, and that, ultimately, “navigation” serves as a primary source of E-Lit’s signification. It was many years ago that Roland Barthes proclaimed the death of the author, but E-Lit offers new provocation indeed.

This leads me to my closing reflection via analogy: These days, the role of the reader is much like the role of the learner (in a 21st century digitized context). I see a kind of inherent transformation in both of these roles. Reading used to be a more solitary act, bound to a private and somewhat intimate domain. (Imagine being curled up for some time with a good book…add a fireplace and a big comfy chair). The act of reading in the analog world has always been about reception and private mindscapes. But, today (with the advent of E-Lit), we are presented with a new sense of reading, which necessarily includes a step into an open interactive world, a step marked by vivid agency and choice. In many ways, I see today’s learner positioned like that new kind of reader. Twenty-first century readers and learners must grapple with an open networked world of possibilities, they must exercise their own agency, effectively, in order to determine their own course of meaning.

Banner image: Lubomir Panak. “Crime scene” image: AJ Cann